Jewish Journal

Jew in the Jungle

by Joy Rothke

November 4, 2004 | 7:00 pm

In 2002 I wrote "Tropical Depression: Lost in Paradise," an essay about my misadventures as a newly minted

expat. It was published about six months after I arrived from San Francisco to tiny, rural La Fortuna de San Carlos, Costa Rica.

Relocating to Central America seemed like a good idea at the time. The previous year, I'd spent an idyllic six-week vacation here. So why not make the move? It was only after I arrived that I remembered that "Vacation Life" and "Real Life" aren't the same. By then, it was too late to turn back. I had an empty bank account and a bungalow full of stuff I'd paid dearly to ship from the States.

I also failed to anticipate the experience of being the only Jew in town. I'd always lived in communities that were primarily non-Jewish, and since my level of observance tended to ebb and flow, it wasn't a problem. There were always shuls, Jewish organizations and businesses available to me when I wanted them.

There are some 3,000 Jews in Costa Rica, most in the capital city San Jose, about three hours from here. I'm the only Jew around here -- the "The Jew in the Jungle" as a friend in New York jokingly referred to me.

It stopped being funny as I experienced life is like country with an official state religion (Roman Catholicism), no separation of church and state and no other members of the tribe. After more than two and a half years, I'm still the only Jew in town, and I don't like that. I had to leave the Jewish community to discover how much I want to be a part of it.

Since then, my material existence has improved in large and small ways. I have home Internet and cable TV service, a washing machine and a refrigerator. We've installed screens on our windows, reducing access to the jungle's vast and varied insect life. And I got two dogs. One is a border collie who was given to us as a puppy; the other, a mini pinscher/mix I adopted after finding him cowering in our driveway, malnourished and half-dead from a large knife wound to his side. Harry Truman was right when he said, "If you want a friend, get a dog."

La Fortuna still lacks a bookstore or a library. Two years ago, our house was surrounded on three sides by pastureland. Now, a dozen new houses, filled with multigenerational families, have been constructed, and this once-rural area is on its way to becoming a semi-subdivision.

About 18 months ago, a Pentecostal congregation erected an enormous tent across the road. It was for a one-month revival, but they never left. As a demographic phenomenon, illustrating the growth of Christian fundamentalism in Latin America and the resulting reduction of influence of the Roman Catholic Church, it's interesting. As neighbors, they leave a lot to be desired, treating us to blaring amplified revival services several times a week. Even with my doors and windows shut, I can hear them loud and clear, speaking in tongues and beseeching "El Se?or."

The first time I hard them singing what sounded like "Hinei Ma Tov," I thought I was hallucinating. But it really was "Hinei Ma Tov." Apparently, one of the members has a CD of Hebrew songs, and composed new Christianized lyrics.

Judaism is a communal faith, and while I do my best to observe the mitzvot and learn on my own, it's lonely. If a Jew davens in the rain forest, does anyone hear her?

Do I think about coming home? Most of the time. Do I miss my country? Constantly. Do I regret this move? Frequently. Am I moving back? Yes. Some people are cut out to be adventurers and expatriates. I'm not one of them. I'm an American -- an American Jew, and this isn't my place.

My American husband claims to miss nothing about the States except baseball. Me, I miss hundreds of things about my country. Everything from seasons to bookstores to Target and of course, family and friends and Yiddishkayt -- especially family and friends and Yiddishkayt. I don't feel at home here. It's not just the different language and customs and culture. This isn't my home. And it never will be. I don't belong here.

On my first visit back to the States in October 2003, I stood transfixed in the aisle of an enormous Shop-Rite supermarket in Nutley, N.J. I'd forgotten there were so many brands of cold cereal in the world. And who knew about all the new varieties of matzah? What I loved most about spending time with family in New Jersey and Southern California was being part of a thriving Jewish community. I was back with my tribe, back home.

My time in exile hasn't all been wasted. I've learned to depend on myself and, at the same time, treasure the relationships I have with family and friends far away. My relationship with Hashem has been transformed.

There's a lesson to be learned from loneliness and wisdom to be garnered from wrong choices. Some of us have to learn the hard way.

Joy Rothke is a freelance writer in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Salon.com. Contact her at sfsassenach@yahoo.com.

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